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Reflections on Cold War Propagandists: Arthur Koestler

[This was in my incomplete draft post folder of this blog.  I can't remember what motivated me to write about Koestler, but I suspect it had to do with the fact that Darkness At Noon somehow made it to #8 on the Modern Library's Top 100 Book List.  Although the Modern Library's "Readers' Top 100 List" is worse than the critics (it's dominated by Ayn Rand and L. Ron Hubbard), it is still annoying to see that Koestler's anti-communist novel ended up so high on the critics' list, trumping even Dostoevsky.  In any case, in lieu of any new post, there's no point in letting this completed one lie dormant…]

The anti-communist literary edifice that was developed during the cold war in order to construct a discourse about "totalitarianism" that lingers to this day is based upon the work (excluding Orwell) of two iconic figures: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Arthur Koestler.  In some ways Solzhenitsyn's work eclipses that of Koestler's because: i) it provided the narrative of the "gulag"; ii) it was aesthetically superior (i.e. say what you want about One Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich but it was a superior novel, and in fact did teach us something about the errors of siege socialism, than anything Koestler produced.  And yet Solzhenitsyn, being a consummate conservative whose opposition to communism was premised on his desire for theocracy, was less palatable to the liberal anti-communist than an Arthur Koestler.  Indeed, Koestler would celebrate, in the midst of his anti-communism, everything that a liberal critic of communism would agree with––which is why, despite the fact that Darkness At Noon is aesthetically inferior piece of anti-communist fiction to Ivan Denisovich, it was more palatable to the western literati.

Yep, this was the edition I owned, thanks to a first year undergrad history course on "totalitarianism".

Although I have no interest in reifying a narrative of the former Soviet Union that not only treats the period under Stalin as free of error but even, and more ludicrously, pretends that there is an unbroken continuation from Stalin to Khrushchev to Brezhnev, I still find that the "criticisms from the right" (i.e. the critiques of "totalitarianism" that were driven by imperialist cold war ideology) should be interrogated.  Due to the fact that this discourse's residual affects contribute to a popular conceptualization of the former CPSU, and that people are often unaware of the ways in which this discourse was constructed, it is often useful to unveil the sources of a particular "common sense" understanding of history (that is not always shared by actual academics, even anti-communist academics) so as to demonstrate the ways in which the literary representation of that era actual promoted a poor historical understanding.  So again: the common imaginary of "totalitarian" communism rests upon the edifice of Solzhenitsyn and Koestler, and yet the latter, though in some ways less popular than former, might be more significant.  Solzhenitsyn gave us the literary construction of the so-called "gulag" but Koestler gave us the literary narrative of Stalinism as a murderous regime, with millions intentionally sacrificed––indeed, it was Koestler who claimed that the CPSU under Stalin intentionally murdered 20-25 million, and he made this claim with liberal horror (Solzhenitsyn the conservative was more modest, claiming it was probably only 1 million).

It is telling that the popular understanding of Soviet violence is based on a novelist rather than a historian or social scientist, despite the fact that the latter weren't in short supply; it is almost as if the imperialists are signalling the fact that they are uninterested in providing actual empirical accounts by basing their narrative upon the conjectures of Koestler, a novelist… but then who bothers to do the research, and look at what people are citing, and scratch their head at the fact that works of fiction are taken to be the sources of the supposed death tolls.  Koestler's fiction is one of the foundational sources of the counts that are produced for the "black book" of communism, but disappears into arcane citations because what historian would ever cite a fiction author in the first place?  Only one that has already bought a certain understanding of history.  Koestler, the great secret (or not-so-secret) basis of "anti-totalitarian" scholarship.

But who was Arthur Koestler and why should we care about his subjectivist reflections?  We are told that he was a communist who recanted, finding his way back to the sane and capitalist west, but the truth is that he was a Zionist who briefly became a communist and then bounced back to the commitments that undergirded Zionism: he was only drawn to communism, and very briefly, because of the time he spent on a kibbutz––we shouldn't be surprised, then, that he recapitulated upon realizing that Zionism (which was his initial political orientation), in that period of the cold war, was rejected by international communism––and had been since the second conference of the third international.  And let's be clear, Koestler was the kind of Zionist who honestly admitted that the colonization of Palestine was precisely a colonization rather than a mythic return, and celebrated this colonization: in The Thirteenth Tribe he argued that the Ashkenazi Jews (of which he counted himself) were descended from Turkish Khazars, but even still had the civilizational right to colonize Palestine.

Despite being a liberal cosmopolitan, Koestler was suspected of being a serial rapist.  Allegations aside, Koestler himself admitted in his autobiography, The Invisible Writing, that he denounced a woman to the same Soviet police that he would critique because she wouldn't get in his pants. So the Soviet Police are bad, except when he uses them to punish women by lying about them.  Whatever the case we know that he was misogynist and rapist, but was somehow allowed to speak with moral authority (obviously lacking scholarly authority) on the former Soviet Union.  Koestler was indeed the kind of people the Soviet police, whatever its excesses, should have arrested due to their anti-people practices: rapists and colonialists are definitely not friends of the people.

But here's a question worth considering: despite the fact that Koestler's Darkness At Noon ended up in the top ten of the Modern Library's Top 100 novels of all time (somehow better than Dostoevsky, Proust, Hugo, Kafka, Achebe, Cervantes, and so many others), is anyone actually reading him anymore now that the Cold War is over?


  1. So how precisely is Koestler wrong or unsupported?

    Also, you have a typo: "...this discourse's residual affects contribute to..." should be "effects".

    1. Yeah, typos will happen. Hitting post before proof reading is habitual.

      As for Koestler being wrong, the only people who take him seriously as a source are cold warrior historians. Soviet historians today do not consider him a valid academic source. Journals he was involved in were funded by the CIA. We can go on and on…

  2. People who read Koestler: children of anti-communist immigrants to NATO countries.

  3. I was wondering whether you could comment a little further on totalitarianism. This is something that you have repeatedly argued is a term symptomatic of cold war doctrine and I was wondering how you then characterised the Soviet state, especially from Stalin to Brezhnev, and in relation to civil liberties (freedom of speech, freedom of assembly etc)?

    1. Repeatedly argued and explained why in many past posts (probably should have back linked, but that would have made this place-holding post more onerous than it should be). Also, since we've had this discussion in person multiple times I'm confused as to why you're asking this question here. In any case, here's just a summary of what I meant about 'totalitarianism'…

      Mainly I don't think it's a scientific concept but one that was put forward by Hannah Arendt that explains nothing about the complexity of life in the Soviet Union and is designed to conflate actually existing socialism with fascism. It was picked up by cold warriors to do precisely this: claim that the Soviet Union was completely monolithic without any kind of vibrant interior culture except the culture that was a pro-capitalist resistant [and thus illegal] culture. Obviously the siege socialism that developed in the CPSU is something that should be critiqued (as I mentioned briefly above and as I have said elsewhere) but the assumption that there was not a complexity to the Soviet Union, and that things were so monolithic, is a bizarre claim that contemporary historians of the Soviet Union (who will criticize it for different reasons, not arguing that) would deny. This becomes especially problematic in terms of the story that is told about literature, as I mentioned on my other blog in the post about the Strugatsky Brothers. Actually, I think that post explains a bit more, in reference to the example of the arts, what I meant.


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